When the Skyliner was introduced in 1957, milk cost $1 a gallon, and houses were affordable. Americans were eager to buy cars, and Ford needed something to distinguish the full-size Fairlane 500 from its competitors.
Engineer Bob Smith came up with a concept that could effortlessly retract the roof into the trunk at the push of a button. It was a marvelous piece of mechanical showmanship that drew crowds to Ford showrooms.
When it comes to classic cars, few are more iconic than the 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner Retractable Hardtop. The Skyliner was the first mass-produced car to have a powered retractable roof, and it was a stunning engineering marvel. It was also a huge sales success, helping Ford to take the top spot in convertible production from long-time rival Chevrolet for the first time since World War II.
The ’57 Skyliner was built from July 1957 through September 1959, and it was available with either a 230 or 245-hp V8 engine. It was a top-of-the-line model in the Fairlane 500 lineup, and it could reach up to 130 mph speeds. The Skyliner was a hit with both men and women, and it was popular with couples and families alike. Its sleek appearance and innovative technology made it a true head-turner, and people would gather in Ford showrooms just to see it work.
America was fascinated by space-age engineering in the late ’50s, and Detroit fed that frenzy with jet-inspired tailfins and fuel-injected multi-carburetor engines. Ford designer Gil Spear had been working on a concept for a retractable roof vehicle in sketch form as early as 1948, and this caught the attention of William Clay Ford, the brother of company president Henry Ford II and the head of Dearborn’s Special Products Division. He approved a $2 million budget for SPD to develop a practical retractable hardtop, and months of work began.
Engineer Ben Smith was tasked with the development of the new system, and he completed it in just 18 months. His design incorporated power relays, limit switches, solenoids, lock motors, and drive motors to transform the ’57 Skyliner from a coupe into a convertible and back again. All it took was a push of the button, and 610 feet of wiring delivered electricity to 10 power relays, 10 limit switches, eight circuit breakers, and four lock motors, all working in a coordinated sequence to perform the remarkable mechanical ballet that lasted less than a minute.
The ’57 Skyliner was so popular that it actually helped Ford surpass long-time sales leader Chevrolet, and it helped to reestablish the brand as an innovator. While production numbers were fairly low compared to the total Ford lineup, 20766 Skyliners were sold during its three-year run. They drew crowds into showrooms and even made it to the movies. Robert Mitchum drove a ’57 Skyliner in the bootlegger flick Thunder Road, and it even appeared on the cover of Life magazine.
During the Skyliner’s brief run – it was dropped in 1959 – Ford sold 20,766 cars. Even though it cost more than a standard convertible, it brought a lot of attention to the Ford brand. Even President Dwight Eisenhower had a Skyliner in his garage.
The Skyliner’s story started way back in 1949 when Ford stylist Gil Spear saw the Chrysler Thunderbolt show car’s retractable roof and began sketching ideas for a similar feature for his employer’s cars. Ford execs liked the idea, and a prototype was built for testing purposes in 1955.
By 1957, the car was ready to go. It was Ford’s most expensive model that year, selling for $2,942. Most were equipped with many options, making the Skyliner a heavyweight at over 4,000 pounds fully loaded. US magazine Motor Trend found that a 1957 Fairlane 500 Skyliner with the standard 245-hp (183-kW) V8 engine and Ford-O-Matic transmission took over 11 seconds to reach 60 mph from rest, despite its substantial weight penalty.
Skyliner sales dipped during 1958 and even fell below 20,000 units, partly because of the economy and also because many buyers favored the gaudy “batwing” ’59 Chevrolets. However, it appears that the Skyliner was still a big draw in showrooms, attracting people to Ford dealers who wanted to marvel at its mechanical showmanship.
The ad campaign was a hit with the public, and many TV shows featured the car, including I Love Lucy. The show’s producers were so impressed that they arranged for an episode to be shot at the Ford plant where the Skyliners were produced.
The Skyliner had one more contribution to make in 1958 when it was renamed the Galaxie series and moved up to top position in the full-size Ford lineup. The squared-off ’59 Galaxie styling set a tone that would be followed by other manufacturers, with the result that the long deck look became the dominant style of the era. But the Skyliner remained a standout in its own right, and it was a fitting finale to an engineering feat that the press and public had hailed as “the world’s only hide-away hardtop.” The ad that ran for the last time in 1959 summed it up perfectly: “The same kind of magic that makes the Ford Skyliner work goes into every new feature in our full line of dream cars.” It certainly did.
A true icon of the 1950s, the Ford Skyliner was one of the first vehicles to feature a retractable hardtop. The roof would move seamlessly between a two-door coupe and a convertible in seconds, giving drivers the best of both worlds. Today, the Skyliner is a highly sought-after collector’s item. It is a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of the engineers who created it and a symbol of the optimism and innovation of that era.
The Skyliner first debuted at the New York Auto Show in December 1956 but didn’t go on sale until spring 1957. The car was marketed as “The World’s Only Hide-Away Hardtop,” and the mechanism was certainly impressive. Ford even arranged for the I Love Lucy show to send Lucy and Ricky on a visit to see the car’s incredible operation in action. The publicity helped propel Ford sales ahead of Chevrolet in 1957, and the Skyliner was a major contributor.
The Skyliner was offered alongside Ford’s traditional ragtop convertible in its three-year production run. But while it was an engineering marvel, it was ultimately a failure as a marketing exercise. The high price premium for the Skyliner over the traditional ragtop was too much of a draw, and buyers overwhelmingly preferred the conventional convertible.
By the end of 1959, only 12,915 Skyliners found buyers, and Ford ended production of this remarkable car. However, the name lived on. It was later used for a model of the Ford Fairlane 500 Galaxie that had a transparent Plexiglas roof, similar to the Vista-Dome observation cars that had become popular on passenger trains a few years earlier.
Ford is considering reviving the Skyliner name for its new hardtop convertible, but the company may have to work out some intellectual property issues with Nissan before that happens. It remains to be seen whether the Skyliner will regain its status as one of the most iconic cars of the 1950s, but for now, it’s a beautiful reminder of an era that was all about innovation and exploration.
The Ford Skyliner bowed at the New York Auto Show in December 1956 and went on sale a month later, sandwiched between the Crestline and Fairlane series. It wasn’t an instant hit, however. A combination of the awkwardly proportioned body and the Skyliner’s $US3500 price tag didn’t help sales, and a fierce sibling rival in the form of the two-seat Thunderbird was making things difficult for the Ford model.
The Skyliner’s main selling point was its retractable roof, and it was quite an amazing piece of engineering. At the touch of a button, 610 feet of wiring delivered electricity to 10 power relays, 10 limit switches, 8 circuit breakers, 4 lock motors, and 3 drive motors to set in motion a mesmerizing spectacle that took less than 60 seconds to perform.
Unfortunately, the gimmick didn’t really do the job when it came to driving. US magazines found that it could take more than 11 seconds to get to 60mph (97km/h) from rest and complained that the additional 240kg of the top made the car feel less responsive than its cloth-top counterparts.
A Skyliner convertible would have been much more useful, but that wasn’t in the cards for the 1959 model year. Ford opted to rename the Fairlane 500 Galaxie Skyliner car and make some improvements. The new model year brought a larger-capacity 352 cubic inch (5.8 liters) Interceptor V8 and, most importantly, Ford’s first automatic transmission.
While these changes helped, they weren’t enough to boost Skyliner sales, and the Skyliner faded into obscurity in 1960. Ford would use the Skyliner name again in 1966 on a pair of hardtop coupes based on the Fairlane and Falcon. These cars were similar to the 1957-59 models but had a fixed roof panel rather than a more sophisticated revolving roof mechanism.
The Fairlane 500 Skyliner was a fascinating concept ahead of its time, and it would be another three decades before retractable hardtops became mainstream. Ford’s reworking of the Skyliner name in 1966 didn’t catch on either, and it’s doubtful that the company will ever revive it for a production model.